I was honored to be a member of the 2008 Michael L. Printz Award committee, but it can be a difficult thing to be charged with selecting the (mythical) best young adult book of the year, as any former committee member can attest. You read three hundred books, in full or in part; you dearly love thirty of them, but ultimately you have to narrow your choices down to three. You wrestle with the award criteria, with your own literary prejudices, and with the committee process (I subscribe to that old adage about a camel being a horse designed by committee). Your committee’s final choices are announced at the ALA Midwinter meeting to shrieks of joy, polite applause, and/or groans of disappointment. It’s hard not to get defensive, especially when you are not at liberty to disclose just how the committee reached its decision, but criticism is part and parcel of the whole experience and presents an opportunity to open up a dialogue about our fundamental perceptions of teens, books, and teen book awards.
While many of us have a vague idea that the Printz is given for “excellence” or “literary merit,” what does it really mean when we put award stickers on young adult books? Who is the award really for? Is the Printz a reward for the author of the book? Does it recognize literary craft, regardless of genre or popularity? Does it matter if there is only a small audience for the book? Do we trust that great literature will speak powerfully to that small audience? Or is it for the reader of the book? Can the book be used to promote reading and books among the intended audience? What good is it if teens won’t read the chosen books? And isn’t teen appeal part of literary excellence, anyway? Over the past decade the dichotomy between literary merit and teen appeal has become increasingly evident, and perhaps nothing bears this out so much as a comparison between the first crop of Printz books and the most recent.
Of the four books recognized by the 2000 Printz committee, nobody would deny that Monster and honor books Speak and Hard Love feature a great combination of literary merit and teen appeal (indeed, you would be hard pressed to find a better group of books in the Printz canon), and all three have aged extremely well. While Monster has an innovative format, none of the three is too far removed from the traditional young adult problem novel featuring a contemporary setting and first-person narration. The third honor book, Skellig, is the exception: magical realism for a younger, arguably narrower, audience.
Fast forward to the end of the decade, and we see how the tide has turned—slowly, surely, and perhaps irrevocably. Jellicoe Road does have a contemporary setting (although not an American one), but it is more literary fiction than problem novel. Tender Morsels and The Kingdom on the Waves (the second volume of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing) are fantasy and historical fiction, respectively, but likewise have a very literary sensibility that seems to transcend these genres. And Nation is a tour-de-force combination of coming-of-age novel, fantasy, and alternative history. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is the only work recognized by the Printz in 2009 that can be categorized as from the 2000 crop of Printz honorees.
Clearly, the field of young adult literature has grown more varied, more literary, and more adult over the past decade, and the dominance of the traditional problem novel has given way to a multiplicity of styles and genres. So how was this transformation reflected in the books recognized during the first decade of the Printz Award?
The 2001 Printz books split down the middle between quality and popularity (to speak in VOYA parlance), with the literary titles Kit’s Wilderness and Many Stones on one side and the crowdpleasers The Body of Christopher Creed, Stuck in Neutral, and Angus, Thongs and Full-frontal Snogging on the other. While they all feature a contemporary setting, each of these books strays somewhat from the traditional YA problem novel: Kit’s Wilderness is an ambitious, complex ghost story; the father-daughter story in Many Stones is set in South Africa; The Body of Christopher Creed is a smart, suspenseful mystery; Angus, Thongs and Full-frontal Snogging is narrated in diary style by its comic British heroine; Stuck in Neutral’s narrator is a teen with cerebral palsy who is unable to communicate with people.
A Step from Heaven upset the heavily favored True Believer (the second volume in Wolff’s highly praised Make Lemonade trilogy), becoming the first of three Printz winners this decade by debut novelists (How I Live Now and Looking for Alaska being the other two). Both books count as literary fiction and feature innovative formats, but A Step from Heaven was always more popular with critics than kids, while True Believer rates high on the popularity meter. The honor books were anincluded Freewill, a contemporary novel with an experimental second-person narrative voice; The Ropemaker, the first traditional high fantasy to be recognized; and Heart to Heart, the first poetry book and only anthology.
The winner in this fourth year of the Printz award, Postcards from No Man’s Land, was yet another literary title for a very limited audience. Proponents of a more utilitarian book award were becoming restless. It didn’t matter that the honor books had loads of teen appeal. They included Hole in My Life, a memoir-cum-cautionary tale; My Heartbeat, a soapy yet sophisticated love triangle; and The House of the Scorpion, a riveting science fiction novel, the first the committee recognized in that genre. It was also becoming abundantly clear by this point that international authors (primarily from Britain, but later from Canada, New Zealand, and especially Australia) were making their mark. They would win the Printz no fewer than four times by the end of the first decade (five if you count Meg Rosoff, an American living abroad in England), and they would win at least a Printz honor in every year but this next one, setting the Printz apart from the other U.S.-centric ALA awards.
The First Part Last is the only Printz winner to be recognized by both of the YALSA list committees—Best Books for Young Adults and Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers. It also won the Coretta Scott King Award and was the second Printz winner authored by an African American (after Monster).Women writers captured all the recognition this year (a feat they would duplicate in 2008). The honor books were Fat Kid Rules the World and The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, a pair of issue-driven tragi-comedies; Keesha’s House, something between a verse novel and a poetry collection; and A Northern Light, the first work of historical fiction to be recognized.
How I Live Now is a work of speculative fiction, but it probably appeals to romance readers as much as, if not more than, fantasy and science fiction fans. Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy was the second historical fiction recognized; Airborn and Chanda’s Secrets were the first books by Canadian authors to be honored. For only the third time in the decade the Printz committee did not use its full complement of honor books. While the Newbery and Caldecott regularly pick two or three honor books—and very occasionally only one—it has been a rare occurrence for the Printz, partially because the Printz procedures encourage more honor books.
Looking for Alaska, another winner that got high marks for both literary quality and teen appeal, presided over the most wonderfully eclectic mix of honor books yet: Black Juice, the first and only short story collection; I Am the Messenger, a strong contemporary mystery with a postmodern ending; A Wreath for Emmett Till, a glorious historical sonnet cycle; and John Lennon, a compelling and revelatory biography of the rock legend. John Lennon remains the only pure nonfiction title recognized in the first decade (memoirs such as Hole in My Life I consider to be autobiographical novels). The brand new YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults should ameliorate some of that neglect, but let’s hope future Printz committees still strive to find excellence within the nonfiction genre, the stepchild of young adult literature.
American Born Chinese upset the heavily favored Book Thief and Octavian Nothing: The Pox Party to become the first and only graphic novel so far to win Printz recognition, and it also landed on the inaugural list of YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens, shining a very bright spotlight on the entire genre. Of course, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing would eventually become the most decorated book of the year (National Book Award, Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, etc.), while The Book Thief’s consolation prize was crossover appeal and unexpected commercial success. An Abundance of Katherines joined American Born Chinese in the popularity camp, while Sonya Hartnett’s Surrender shacked up with The Book Thief and The Pox Party in the literary camp (an oversimplification, to be sure, but a justifiable one nevertheless). With these honors, John Green and Markus Zusak joined David Almond as the only authors to win Printz recognition twice; M. T. Anderson and Margo Lanagan would join that elite club in a couple of years.
Despite its critical success here and in its native Britain, The White Darkness, a survival fantasy thriller, was another surprise winner. The idiosyncratic honor books included Your Own, Sylvia, an amalgamation of fiction, biography, and poetry; Repossessed, a funny yet deep supernatural comedy plucked from relative obscurity to be recognized among the best of the year; One Whole and Perfect Day, a delightful feel-good family story full of grace and humor; and Dreamquake, the second volume of a stunning, challenging fantasy duet. Dreamquake would be one of three sequels to be recognized in the decade (the other two being True Believer and The Kingdom on the Waves), but the only one from the fantasy genre, the group most affected by the problems that sequels pose. What may be most noticeable about this group is what did not get picked: Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Parttime Indian, which eventually became the most decorated book of the year. While it may have been the most disappointing omission, it was by no means the only one: also missing from the list are The New Policeman, A Darkling Plain, The Arrival, Red Spikes, and Mistik Lake, to name those with the most critical and popular acclaim.
It’s impossible for me to be dispassionate about the 2008 awards because I was a member of the committee, but since I enjoy second-guessing the Printz committee as much as anyone, and since I’ve been a good sport about taking my fair share of criticism, I’ve decided to dish it out as well. Here are ten coulda-woulda-shoulda picks the Printz overlooked.
2000: To be sure, the quality of nonfiction has waxed and waned throughout the decade, but this first Printz year featured an excellent title for older young adults in Marc Aronson’s Sir Walter Ralegh and the Quest for El Dorado, which won two major nonfiction prizes (the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award and the Sibert Award) but couldn’t find its way onto the Printz list, even though there was an open slot for another honor book.
2001: This was the year of great middle school titles (they swept all the major prizes), but none was better than the powerful Silent to the Bone, which many anticipated as a Newbery possibility, too. It got blanked by both committees, however, and I’ve never really gotten over it.
2002: This was arguably the greatest single year in the history of young adult literature and it is just teeming with possibilities, but my bonus Printz honor has to go to Mildred Taylor’s The Land, a sweeping drama that won the Coretta Scott King Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the Scott O’Dell Award.
2003: I know many would choose to go with M. T. Anderson’s Feed or E. R. Frank’s America here, but I’ve got to go with the nonfiction title again: Elizabeth Partridge’s great Woody Guthrie biography This Land Was Made for You and Me won the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award and a National Book Award nomination, yet no love from the Printz committee—and once again, there was an open honor book slot.
2004: Jim Murphy’s awesome An American Plague swept the three major nonfiction prizes (Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, Sibert Award, Orbis Pictus Award), won a Newbery Honor, and snagged a National Book Award nomination, but inexplicably failed to sufficiently impress the Printz committee.
2005: Although it did win some accolades, Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood, a small press title, was woefully underappreciated. But this was such a deep year (and only three honor books named) that I also have to mention my runner-up here, Jaclyn Moriarty’s The Year of Secret Assignments, an underrated romantic comedy.
2006: The Printz got an assist from the Newbery, which chose Lynne Rae Perkins’s Criss Cross and Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Hitler Youth, both books for the older end of the Newbery spectrum, so I’ve got to give the bonus Printz Honor to Gabrielle Zevin’s Elsewhere, a strong debut novel that was the best of the subgenre that can be best described as The Children of The Lovely Bones.
2007: If I were a committee of one, I’d probably go with the behemoth Aidan Chambers’s This Is All, but I’ve decided to cast my lot with Megan Whalen Turner’s brilliant The King of Attolia, which was snubbed by the Newbery as well as by the Printz. I could have gone with Jonathan Stroud’s Ptolemy’s Gate, too.
2008: Sherman Alexie’s semi-autobiographical Diary of a Part-time Indian. What happened??? Oh, wait, I was on the committee. I know.
2009: Candace Fleming’s The Lincolns was easily one of the better books of the year, and it got passed over by all the ALA award committees (though it was chosen as an ALSC Notable Children’s Book). This is my fourth nonfiction bonus Printz honor, and I had to fight the urge to name two additional titles (Natalie S. Bober’s Countdown to Independence and James Cross Giblin’s Good Brother, Bad Brother). Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I guess. Or maybe the Printz committee just needs glasses . . .
It’s a mistake, of course, to think of the committee as if it is a single monolithic entity, as if it is of one mind about anything. The reality is that the committee is made up of nine passionate people—and a different nine every year—who have wildly divergent opinions, attitudes, and tastes. Chances are that your opinions, attitudes, and tastes were represented by someone on the committee. The Printz Award has presided over a very gradual shift from the first-person contemporary problem novel that has historically defined young adult literature to a multiplicity of styles and genres. How you feel about this trend probably depends on your fundamental assumptions about young adult literature. Keep in mind, however, that fundamental assumptions do not drive the awards process, but rather a strict set of guidelines; and all the wishing, pontificating, and obfuscating will not make it otherwise. The Printz has coincided with an unprecedented amount of creativity in terms of the quality and the quantity of young adult books. Let us hope that the strength of the literature continues unabated until the Printz creates a canon as revered as that of the Newbery.
2000 Printz winner
Monster by Walter Dean Myers
2000 honor books
Skellig by David Almond
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger
2001 Printz winner
Kit’s Wilderness by David Almond
2001 honor books
Many Stones by Carolyn Coman
The Body of Christopher Creed by Carol Plum-Ucci
Angus, Thongs and Full-frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison
Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman
2002 Printz winner
A Step from Heaven by An Na
2002 honor books
Freewill by Chris Crutcher
The Ropemaker by Peter Dickinson
Heart to Heart edited by Jan Greenberg
True Believer by Virginia Euwer Wolff
2003 Printz winner
Postcards from No Man’s Land by Aidan Chambers
2003 honor books
The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
My Heartbeat by Garret Freymann-Weyr
Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos
2004 Printz winner
The First Part Last by Angela Johnson
2004 honor books
A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
Keesha’s House by Helen Frost
Fat Kid Rules the World by K. L. Going
The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler
2005 Printz winner
How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
2005 honor books
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary Schmidt
Airborn by Kenneth Oppel
Chanda’s Secrets by Allan Stratton
2006 Printz winner
Looking for Alaska by John Green
2006 honor books
Black Juice by Margo Lanagan
A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson
John Lennon by Elizabeth Partridge
I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak
2007 Printz winner
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
2007 honor books
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation,Volume I: The Pox Party by M. T. Anderson
An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
Surrender by Sonya Hartnett
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
2008 Printz winner
The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean
2008 honor books
One Whole and Perfect Day by Judith Clarke
Your Own, Sylvia by Stephanie Hemphill
Repossessed by A. M. Jenkins
Dreamquake by Elizabeth Knox
2009 Printz winner
Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
2009 honor books
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing,Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves by M. T. Anderson
Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
Nation by Terry Pratchett